Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

The future is now. But where does it go from here?

Posted in Business, Ireland, Rolling stock by Chairman Pip on 14 March 2011

The future of NI Railways starts now. The first of their brand new, £100m fleet of Class 4000 trains has been delivered today to Belfast, from where it has been taken to begin testing and mileage accumulation. Over the course of the next few months more units will be delivered, allowing the final withdrawl of the venerable Class 80 and Class 450 units. Naturally, this is a day for much grandstanding by lots of “important” people:

The start of delivery of these 20 trains represents an £114m commitment by my Department to improve and modernise rail services for passengers across the north. On top of the £81m investment in 23 trains in 2005 – this means that all the older trains currently in service will be replaced. The first of these ultra modern trains will enter passenger service by the end of the year, offering the public a high standard of performance, comfort, safety and accessibility.
Conor Murphy, Minister for Regional Development

One wonders whether Mr Murphy averted his eyes when the first carriage, bearing NI Railways’ name and logo, was unloaded, given that he is a member of Sinn Féin, and thus does not recognise the existence of a geopolitical entity called “Northern Ireland” (hence his use of the words “modernise rail services for passengers across the north”, rather than “modernise rail services for passengers throughout Northern Ireland”. But that’s another story)

This new fleet highlights government’s continued commitment to providing people with state-of-the-art public transport and I would like to thank the Regional Development Minister and the NI Assembly for their ongoing support. With over 60% customer growth since 2002 it is clear that more and more people are now choosing the train as the more attractive and good value travel option. Indeed this year we are on schedule to carry even more customers than ever before. These new trains will allow us to build on this success in order to further contribute sustainably to the social, environmental and economic development of the North.
Catherine Mason, Chief Executive, Translink

There’s that term again…”the north”. Did Mr Murphy come to the docks with some Sinn Féin “attendents” in tow to ensure those involved did not say anything they shouldn’t? Like calling Northern Ireland “Northern Ireland”.  (Another story, another story). Anyhoo, it is good certainly that the long needed modernisation of the railway in Northern Ireland is progressing, and that the Northern Ireland Executive saw fit to pump nearly £150m into the work. Once the Class 4000 fleet is in service, NIR will have a thoroughly modern, urban commuter fleet, while the work to improve the standard of the Derry line to ensure its future is ongoing. But what then? Oh sure, NIR has a wishlist of stuff it wants to do, but will the money be available? Something that I’ve learned in aspects of my work is that, if you buy new books, you have to ensure that they are replaced when new editions come out. And to do that you need money. So it’s no good if the politicians and executives that run the railway spend the money and suck each others dicks over how brilliant they are if in five years time there’s no money to maintain the brand new trains and newly refurbished track to the right standard. Additionally, there is the question over what NIR plans to do with the resources it will withdraw, namely its old trains. Time and again I’ve said that, if SWIFFT gets hold of the Waterford-Rosslare line, it (and whoever its partner ends up being) will need trains and need them quickly. The Class 450, I’ve also said, would probably be ideal. But that’s going to be no good if NIR starts sending them to be cut up. And where will that leave the prospect of competition, both for Iarnród Éireann and NIR? Not that there is likely to be massive competition on Northern Ireland’s railways, as a scathing tweet from Wolmar pointed out:

Oh that will make a lot of sense on a network of, what, 100 miles or so?

Even so, given that NI Railways (and its parent, Translink) is still a business, even if it is owned by the taxpayer, and thus should not turn down the prospect of a commercial, money making endeavour like leasing its trains to someone else.

This post is sort of bobbing along aimlessly now, so I’ll try and wrap it up. It’s good that NIR’s new trains have arrived, and of course this is worthy of publicising. But, we shouldn’t be so wrapped up in all of this that we ignore the potential future misgivings, both in terms of returning to the drift that the railway network suffered for so long, but also in terms of dumping the old to embrace the new. Because the old can have a part to play.

“First of Translink N.I Railways’ new fleet arrives in Belfast”
“First of 20 new trains arrives at Belfast docks”

Conor Murphy and Catherine Mason pose in front of the first Class 4000 as it is unloaded in Belfast. What is the future for NI Railways, and indeed the wider operation of the railways in Ireland, once this round of investment is complete?


2 Responses

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  1. Ewan Duffy said, on 22 March 2011 at 9:49 pm

    I’m sure if someone tried to buy them for use on the South Wexford line, IR would tell the new Minister for Transport that they were a different gauge or some such BS and he would buy it.

    • Chairman Pip said, on 23 March 2011 at 9:18 am

      One would hope that even the civil servants at DoTTS (Dotts? How much did it cost to come up with that?) would be aware that the island of Ireland has a single rail network. Otherwise what hope is there?

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